A College Student’s Guide to Landing Your First Job
Congratulations—it’s taken four years of hard work (or five, or six—we won’t judge!) and now you’re preparing to walk across that stage and pick up a piece of paper that will make it all worth it. Now you just have the seemingly impossible task of making a recruiter believe you know what you’re doing with your career when all you’ve held is a couple of high school jobs and some college internships. Deep breath—you’ve got this, and we’re here to help. Unfortunately, there’s no magical bridge that will take you to the land of the employed, but we’ve created a guide to help you increase your chances of walking off that stage and straight into your first real-world job.
1. The Resume
A strong resume won’t guarantee you land an interview everywhere you apply, but it will increase your chances of being noticed by the right person. There’s a lot that goes into crafting a quality resume that sets you up as a professional, especially if you don’t have much experience to talk about. Let’s walk through each part of the resume based on our recommendations for recent graduates and common mistakes we see:
The first thing you’ll need to pick out is your layout. We recommend a fairly straightforward, linear design because you never know when an organization you’re applying to might be using ATS scanners to weed out possible applicants.
We’ve also found that more basic designs tend to make the most of the space on the page as opposed to two-column formats or resume with an abundance of section headers with large fancy fonts. These may look nice, but too often people start with a design only to find that they’re sacrificing content to make everything fit into the constraints of their design, which is always a mistake.
Content should be king, so choose an appropriate resume design with conservative margins that allows you to use the entire height and width of the page. When it comes to resume writing, simplicity is best.
You’ll hear a lot of conflicting information when it comes to including an introduction on your resume, but a well-written summary is something we strongly recommend, especially for new graduates.
As an entry-level candidate, it’s unlikely that you have lots of relevant experience that will speak for itself so it can be helpful to include a summary that gives recruiters a strong first impression of the skills/experience points you accumulated throughout college that are relevant to the role you’re applying to.
It’s a good way to communicate who you’d like to be considered as a professional so that you’re not depending on your limited work/internship experience to do so.
One of the most common misconceptions out there surrounding recent graduate resumes is that you have to include every little job you’ve ever held on your resume. The nice thing about being a college student is that no one expects you to include that summer job you had washing cars. Can you? Sure, if you don’t have enough other experience to talk about, but it’s one of the few times you can have a few gaps in your timeline and a recruiter won’t bother asking why. You were a college student, which means that your full-time job was going to college.
So, instead of throwing every part-time position you had throughout college, you should focus on those experiences that will make a recruiter feel more comfortable inviting you in for an interview. Did you complete some projects in college that you think will highlight your relevant skills? Great, then focus on those rather than the waitressing job you took to earn some extra money. Want to make more room for internships? Then feel free to cut out that tutoring job you had one semester.
If those random college jobs are the only experience you have, then make sure you talk about the parts of that job that would be relevant to any role, like times you demonstrated leadership, improved processes, or just did something really well. This will take you a lot farther than just focusing on the daily aspects of the job.
Your education is important. You spent valuable time and money working on your degree, so we get the inclination to focus your whole resume on your education. This is something a lot of new graduates do, and while it’s understandable, it’s still a mistake.
If you spend half of the page talking about relevant coursework, scholarships you earned, and clubs you were part of, all you’ve done is oversold your education at the expense of other things, like internships, projects, and experience that presents your relevant industry experience in a more meaningful way.
Recruiters can infer the standard courses you took as a (fill in the blank) major, but what they can’t infer are those valuable coding skills you learned during your senior capstone that demonstrate your mastery of the exact experience points they’re looking for.
2. The Cover Letter
1st paragraph: The Intro
The best way you can position yourself for success from the first paragraph of your cover letter is by saying who you are, what you want, and what you have to offer. So many people write a cover letter and don’t even mention what role they’re applying for, or that they’d like to be considered. We recommend starting your cover letter by doing just that. This is also your space to talk about your total years of experience, your education, and introduce what you’re currently doing.
2nd paragraph: I’m kind of a big deal (but please don’t say this)
Another pitfall we commonly see on cover letters is new graduates talking too much about what they’re looking for as opposed to what they have to offer. Recruiters know you want the job, so you don’t need to spend a paragraph telling them why you want it. Instead, the second paragraph of your resume should focus on what you can bring to the table, such as relevant strengths, times you improved processes, or led a group project.
The strongest sections rely on factual information (like metrics or specific examples) rather than relying on your own opinion of yourself. The cover letter is our opportunity to explain some of the things on your resume, so if you’re at a loss for what to talk about here, find a bullet on your resume that you think demonstrates something you do really well. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. It’s ok (advisable, even) to talk about something in more detail that you’ve already mentioned on your resume.
3rd paragraph: Call to action
This is your opportunity to be transparent. Recruiters already know you want the job, but they’ll take you more seriously if you tell them how passionate you are about the position and that you’re excited to talk with them further about the opportunity. The goal here is to sound confident in your experience and why you’d be a valuable asset, not desperate.
If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, now’s the time to start thinking about one. Not just another social media platform, LinkedIn is a bulletin board of career professionals for career advice, networking events, and job postings. However, you can’t just casually browse it every once in a while and wait for the right job to fall in your lap. Using LinkedIn efficiently takes some strategy, which starts with having a profile that is visible and active.
First things first, you need a professional headshot. You’ll need this more times than you probably realize, so just do it (you can thank me later). Make sure your photo and profile details are readily available to anyone who wants to check out your profile—a private LinkedIn is like standing awkwardly in the corner at a networking event, just hoping that no one talks to you.
You’ll also want to go through your profile and add each section carefully, from your summary down to your keywords to make sure that everything communicates your experience accurately. You want your profile to be at “All-Star” status at the end, which means that everything on your profile is complete. Once you’ve done this, you’ll want to find some interest groups you can join so that you can start networking.
Meeting new people is never easy, and the same can be said of LinkedIn. However, if you treat LinkedIn like a social media platform and only make connections with people you know, you’re missing out on some major networking opportunities. Sure, start with people from your personal networks—college, internships, even high school—but don’t stop there.
Review suggested connections a few times each week, engage with updates from others, find some new LinkedIn groups, and engage in the group by commenting and liking things you see. This will increase your visibility while also helping you find people to more readily connect.
Once you start identifying people you’d like to connect with, send them a personalized message explaining why you’d like to connect. People who send personalized messages are much more likely to build meaningful connections than people who “cold connect” and instead send the generic “join my network” email.
Once you’ve prepped all of your application materials and built a LinkedIn profile to help you network, it’s time to start applying. One key piece of advice here? Get organized. When you’re applying to 3, 4, even 5 or more organizations every week, it can get confusing to remember where you’re sending what and where you’ve already applied. Keep track of where you’ve applied, as well as what you’ve sent them. Organize your job research, too. Create different folders in your bookmark tabs and save favorites as you go so you can easily return to jobs you’ve already found.
Finally, start applying! No matter where you apply, sit down and use a computer. Lots of job boards will tell you that you can apply on your phone, but you do so at your own peril. If it’s a job you’re serious about, it’s worth sitting down at a computer, taking a second look at your resume and cover letter before you apply to make sure they align with the role you’re looking at, and then (and only then) hitting “submit.”
Once you’ve applied, you don’t get to sit back and wait for things to happen. Serious candidates follow-up within a couple of weeks after applying, because they know that the best way to look a step ahead everyone else is to make the effort to connect with the recruiter who will be deciding whether or not their resume makes it to the next round.
This email is not a cover letter. It should be brief and focused on why you are a quality candidate for the job. If you have a couple of questions about the position or the process, it’s not a bad idea to ask one or two at this point to make it clear you’re seriously interested in the role.
Not sure who the right person is? It’s to do some research—google “hiring manager” or “recruiter,” and then the company’s name. Even if you’re not sure whether or not you’ve found the right person, send the email with a little disclaimer saying that you’re applying to _____ position and are looking for the recruiter hiring for that role. It’s worth a shot! Follow-up addressed to a specific person is much more likely to be read than an email addressed to “to whom it may concern.”
6. The Interview
We’re big fans of interview preparation, regardless of whether you’re the kind of person who enjoys talking about yourself or not. There’s an art to job interviews, and many people miss the mark because they don’t take the time to truly understand the purpose of the interview.
Executive Draft’s owner, Jeremy, says it best: “In my opinion, people are more worried about how to answer negative questions (employment gaps, getting let go from a position) than they are about making the best possible case for their hire. I also think people commonly answer a question without thinking about the true purpose of the question. I know interviews can seem cryptic, but most of these questions are being asked to assess your sense of responsibility, how you deal with conflict, your communication, and your leadership. Understanding the true meaning of a question can help you answer it on a level that resonates with the interviewer.” If you’d like more powerful insight into the interview process, you can read the full interview with Jeremy here.
The point is, many recent graduates don’t take the time to prepare, because they think that they’re pretty comfortable talking about their limited experience, or because how hard could an interview for an entry-level position be? However, the point of interview preparation is not always to help you talk about yourself (although, this is undoubtedly a perk), but more to understand the interview process so that you can anticipate a recruiter’s motive behind any question that might be thrown your way and respond appropriately.
Sit down and do some research on some of the most commonly asked interview questions and craft your answers with the motive behind them in mind. Ask yourself, what’s the real question behind this question? What are they really looking for here? This will help you frame your response in a way that checks all their boxes.
The big day
The long-awaited (or dreaded, depending on how you’re feeling about it) day has arrived. You’ve prepped, polished, and are now ready to present yourself. You should come prepared, which means besides looking the part, you should bring a few copies of your resume with you printed on cardstock. That way, you can refer to it throughout the interview and hand them out, if necessary.
You should also extend courtesy to the interviewers themselves by thanking them for their time and expressing how much you appreciate the opportunity. Recruiters often make up their mind in the first few minutes of an interview, so by starting on the right foot, you’re establishing a rapport that could maintain your status as a front runner the rest of the interview.
As a new graduate, many recruiters assume that they’ll be running the interview. Surprise them by being assertive—answer the questions concisely and directly, then give them an example of a time you demonstrated what they’re looking for. Don’t be long winded but anticipate what they want by giving them a complete picture of who you’d like to be considered as a professional based on examples of how you’ve stood out in the past.
Hopefully, the interview goes great. If that’s the case, whip up that thank you note and send it with confidence, knowing that no matter the outcome, you did your best. If the interview didn’t go as planned, you should still write a thank you note, but take a little extra time to reiterate why you think you’d be a quality candidate for the role. It might just clear up some of the points you communicated poorly in the interview and give you a second chance to be back in the game. If not, then at least you have another interview under your belt and can move forward knowing you’ve learned some valuable lessons you can take with you to the next time.
Whether you’re excited to kick off your career, scared out of your mind, or both, you’re in good company. One thought to carry with you is that everyone was in your shoes once, even the recruiter on the other side of the desk. You’re not going to get every job you apply to, and that’s not the goal. You only need one job—the right one (at least for now). By having a solid resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile, as well as a well-developed application and interview strategies, you’re well on your way to the first step into the rest of your career. If you need help, Executive Drafts has the resources to get you started by offering resume services, interview coaching, career counseling, and LinkedIn optimization to help you along the way.